I recently spent a week in Calais on the Northern border of France filming Syrian refugees. The men there are mainly between the ages of 20 and 35. They left their home country in the hopes of finding a more stable life in Europe, most specifically, in Britain. This is an account of my first impressions.
My first day in Calais, I met Hani. This is not his real name. It was five in the evening and we had just arrived. I was naturally apprehensive, and rightfully so. No amount of research could have prepared me for the gravity of the situation we had just walked into.
A slight waft of urine reaches your nose as you approach the camp. It isn't the refugees' fault; there's no proper restroom in sight, instead there's what Hani called, "a designated corner". It's minimal and you eventually stop noticing it's there. It's harder though to ignore the timorous plastic tents standing at about 4 feet in height evenly distributed in rows across a large area of land about the size of a football field, meters away from Calais' ferry port.
This is home to about 300 refugees from around the world, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt and most recently Syria. In the winter, the tents sit on perpetually damp soil and wet grass, with litter and bottles of urine strewn across corners of the camp. Some people have been at the camp for over 6 months. Others were newly arrived, only a week when we met them.
Along with an activist I had been speaking to weeks in advance, my crew and I tepidly approached the camp sitting just yards away from seafront. Calais's port receives nearly 50 sailings a day and serves as the gateway between England and the rest of Europe. And there they were, so close yet so far. With barely 30km of sea between the refugees at the camp and their ultimate goal, it was the saddest manifestation of irony.
"Hani" was the second person I made eye contact with at the camp. I immediately felt a certain level of trust towards him. As if it was up to me, I wanted HIM to trust ME. Standing at around 5'11, Hani was a slender young man, in his early twenties with gentle quintessentially Syrian features. He looked more like a carefree university student than a refugee.
I explained what my purpose of being there was and his first question was "will this actually make a difference?" I had to be honest with him and could only say that I didn't know. I did feel it was worth getting their stories out and taking a chance. He seemed to shift between a desire to tell his story and great hesitance. I said my peace and waited in near silence, for him to make his decision. I didn't need to insist, he wanted his story told.
Initially, I didn't think we would end up having to avoid filming faces, but the slight quiver in his voice cemented the need for concealed identity. Each of the people I eventually filmed had good reason to not want to show their face and reveal their real name.
We walked away from the tents towards parking lot, the crew, myself and Hani. We were soon followed by a crowd of refugees staying at the camp. They seemed interested in what he was saying and even more interested in my questions to him. Despite Hani's initial hesitance, we stood in the cold as the sun set on us and he spoke of a life he had and new life he hopes to find in Britain.
After Hani graduated university, the uprising began. After it was clear conflict was not going to let up, Hani, like many others I met, decided they needed to flee. "I just wanted to leave the atmosphere of war that I was living in." He said.
The next day, we met with Talal, another pseudonym I chose for the 23-year-old Syrian from a small village in the province of Idlib. It was about three in the afternoon and he had just returned from a "try" about two hours away from the camp. A journey he took on foot.
Talal recounted how he got to Calais. On his fourth and final attempt on a boat from Turkey to Greece, the engine stopped working. After having spent six hours on the boat already, he decided to swim the remaining the remaining distance. He swam for three hours, almost dying in the process.
The snippets of these two men's lives reflect a greater image of Syrians escaping a war that has engulfed the area, almost out of nowhere.Their lives also represent hundreds of people from areas of conflict across the globe that are now in Calais.
A few weeks ago, I was on BBC Coventry and Warwickshire discussing the latest developments at the camps. The refugees have been evicted and the camps have been completely destroyed by the police. The presenter asked me," why would they come here in the first place? aren't a lot of them economic migrants?"
These questions made me realize that we have become desensitized, unable to see the human faces that are attached to every news story. We have an immediate assumption that their intentions are to take advantage. For most of the these people, their leaving is about the country they're abandoning, not the one they're going to. While there will always be opportunists who stand to gain from war and destruction at every level, there are those whose lives have been irrevocably shattered by conflict. their position in Calais is not one of choice, it is one of desperation.